Airbnb isn’t Housin’ in Berlin

Ordinarily the word “housing” means a person’s shelter, lodging or place of dwelling. But shortened to “housin” it refers to, according to Urban Dictionary, a show of dominance or authority.

And when it comes to the dispute between Airbnb and the Berlin government, it’s clear Airbnb isn’t housin’ anything.

The Guardian recently reported that new legislation which laid dormant for the past few years went into effect. The law called (wait for it) “Zweckentfremdungsverbot” limits how people can rent out their property. Specifically, “only rooms via such sites, not entire flats or houses” can be rented and “[o]ffenders can face fines of up to €100,000.”

That’s a fine of $114,904 in USD.

In addition, Berlin has encouraged a “civic spirit” to anonymously inform on people who are disobeying this law. But as one woman who was interviewed by The Guardian remarked, “in Germany, of all places, maybe we should reconsider this kind of thing”.

Berlin’s government’s argument is that Airbnb has been a large contributor to increased property costs. And to their credit, according to The Guardian, rents rose over 50% from 2009 to 2014. In addition, keeping costs low for both tourists and lower-income residents of Berlin are surely noble intentions.

But these “noble intentions” are backed by a feeling of paternalism over the citizens and tourists of Berlin. Berlin’s government feels like they need to protect individuals from themselves and their own choices. They underestimate the resourcefulness of individuals and use it as an excuse to make Airbnb more “acceptable,” according to their standards, by pressuring them to meet arbitrary permits and procedures.

The costs imposed by permits are more likely to drive the demand for affordable rooms underground. And as with the trade of drugs, prostitution and almost any other “vice” that the state wishes to legislate, this can tend to make these practices less safe and less affordable, not more.

In addition, as independent housing expert Daniel Hofmann of GEWOS remarked, “the tiny fraction of homes listed on Airbnb is far too small to have any significant impact on the availability of housing in Berlin. The tense housing market is a complex problem that is being driven by migration and a lack of new homes being built — not people sharing their homes through Airbnb.”

We’ve seen it throughout history that states will create convenient narratives to exercise as much power and control over the market as possible. While it sounds like a noble tale of the state swooping in an protecting us all from a great evil, the reality is that it’s far more likely a way for the government to fulfill their lust for power and control.

It’s also worth asking whether rent-seeking and regulatory capture has anything to do with this legislation. For example, by asking ourselves “Who benefits?” we may well find that the hotel industry had something to do with the legislation.

But let’s assume that the Berlin government is completely correct about Airbnb: That the illegal and profit-making individuals of Airbnb are significantly raising property prices and thus making it harder for people to afford living arrangements.

Are hefty fines backed by threats of violence and forcing housing rentals underground really the best solutions? And even if they are, should we trust an organization that encourages a Big Brother-as-civic-duty mentality among its citizens?

None of this is to say we should be uncritical of Airbnb.

The “sharing economy” as it stands isn’t any sort of peer-to-peer paradise as fellow C4SS writer Kevin Carson has noted: “[T]he gig economy as we know it is unacceptable. It’s an entirely parasitic arrangement in which a capitalist corporation uses its ownership of a proprietary platform to insert itself between drivers and riders and extract tribute for letting them interact with each other.”

But as Carson and I both agree, the answer isn’t to impose government regulations.

Rather, the answer is to fight Airbnb with real alternatives to capitalism and the state.

Let’s put them both out of business and end this state-capitalist economy that’s forcibly “housin” its citizens worldwide.

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